Make no mistake, this was one of the biggest turnarounds in the history of British general elections. During the first week of the campaign, Labour were on course for electoral oblivion. I spoke to a senior Labour politician who predicted (privately) that Labour would suffer its worst defeat in post-war history – worse even than the 15-point drubbing in 1983. All the polls – even those most favourable to Labour – suggested that they were right.
To narrow the gap from around 20 to two points in four weeks is remarkable. The election that Labour were, it seemed, doomed to lose saw them increase their share of the vote by nearly ten points from 2015. It even raises the question of what might have happened had the campaign not been stalled twice by two terrorist attacks. But it has also left several pieces of conventional wisdom in tatters.
Election campaigns don’t cause significant shifts in public opinion: This used to be true: it isn’t any more. As someone who has spent decades researching the relation between media and public opinion, I’m used to telling students that these kinds of changes in public opinion occur over much longer time periods. This suggests that there is more going on here than is simply explained by saying that the Labour campaign was effective and the Conservative campaign was poor.
A hard Brexit is inevitable: This election result has shifted the zeitgeist. John Curtice’s analysis during the BBC’s election coverage suggested that Labour gained far more in Remain areas than they lost in Leave areas. The Leave vote, in other words, is soft. The only Conservative to do really well in this election is Ruth Davidson, a passionate Remainer. The majority of MPs who want a soft Brexit may now be emboldened.
Getting the voters wrong
The polls got it wrong – again: The record of pollsters in recent years has, in fact, not been as bad as conventional wisdom suggests. Brexit was predicted by a number of polls and the result was well within the margin of error of most others. Hillary Clinton did win the popular vote, which was what US polls were measuring. In this election some of the polls were very close, and they all caught the dramatic shift to Labour from week two of the campaign. What mattered was the assumptions they made about turnout. In the last week the raw numbers of most polls showed a fairly narrow Tory lead – it was only when they adjusted for low levels of turnout among young people (as in 2015) that those predicting a larger Tory lead went awry.
Left-wing Labour manifestos go down badly with most voters: Remember the longest suicide note in history, Labour’s 1983 manifesto? To many, taxing the wealthier and promising to bring the trains, the post office and public utilities back into public ownership smacked of unfashionable old leftism. But in truth there are many – though by no means all – left-wing policy positions that have wide public support. Labour’s skill was to focus on their more popular left-wing positions. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine that a more moderate, mealymouthed manifesto would have energised Labour’s campaign as this one did.
The Corbyn factor
A more moderate Labour leader would have done better:. I must confess I was one of the many who were sceptical about Corbyn’s ability to command the dark arts usually required to win elections. But Corbyn’s main problem was the fiasco caused by his own parliamentary party’s attempts to get rid of him. That was when Labour’s poll numbers plummeted – hardly surprising with Labour MPs forming a long line to rubbish their leader in public. The Lib Dems were quite right that they had the centre ground to themselves, but their success was as moderate as their political position.
Labour has to mollify the Tory press to do well: Make no mistake, the attacks on Labour by the more vociferous right-wing newspapers put them at a clear disadvantage – not least because of their agenda-setting role. But in an age of social media their power may be in decline – something broadcasters need to acknowledge. Although there is no doubt that if The Sun, The Daily Mail, Daily Express and the Telegraph embraced journalistic objectivity and sweet moderation, it would remove a significant part of the Conservative Party’s armoury.
It is impossible to imagine Corbyn as prime minister: No longer. If the Parliamentary Labour Party get behind him (and its hard to see what choice they have if they seriously want power), Labour are in a position to capture the political momentum in these most uncertain of times. And that’s not something you would have predicted when May called the snap election in April.